Midway through Sunday’s interminable Oscars broadcast, capping the ceremony’s yearly tribute to Hollywood’s recently deceased, Bette Midler inexplicably belted “Wind Beneath My Wings,” her tearjerker ballad from the 1988 movie Beaches. Midler sounded like she lost her voice around 1992, and synthesizers backed her husky vocals with over-the-top period schmaltz. Presumably, Oscar producer hoped the emphysemic rendition would still tug at the heartstrings of women who fondly recall sobbing when they first saw Beaches two decades ago.
They were wrong. Women were more likely to cough up boxed wine. But a similar optimism for preying on nostalgia has prompted Arlington’s Signature Theatre to commission Beaches, the musical. A week ago no one may have believed this, but what the troupe’s come up with is a far superior experience to listening to a televised Bette Midler.
Put another way: Beaches the musical is actually worth seeing.
Director Eric Schaeffer did not mess around. Iris Rainer Dart, the writer who penned Beaches—the novel, but not the screenplay—wrote the musical’s book, and infused her script with wit and warmth. To play aspiring showgirl Cee Cee Bloom and her Waspy best friend Bertie (known as Hillary in the film), Schaeffer went to New York and hired Alysha Umphress and Mara Davi, Broadway veterans who approached their roles as blank slates. Never, in the brisk two-hour musical, do you get the sense that Davi and Umphress are impersonating film stars, or even paying homage to them.
When Umphress sings “Wind Beneath My Wings,” she is alone onstage, at a microphone, and backed only by Gabriel Mangiante’s offstage piano. She simply sings a well-known song and makes it her own. And if there was any doubt in your mind before, you realize: This musical is anti-schlock.
Which is not to say you won’t need tissues at the end, nor to say there’s no room to improve this world premiere. David Austin’s songs are tuneful, with careful attention paid to vocal harmonies. Two pairs of younger actresses play the prepubescent and teenage Bertie and Cee Cee, and the show peaks musically during the two numbers when all six are onstage singing. Dart also wrote the lyrics, and stumbles a bit when attempting to advance the plot through song.
As a result, the transitions from lyrics to dialogue can be awkward. Take “Bunch of Kids,” an extraneous ditty about how Bertie wants her husband to knock her up. Once the music stops, Cee Cee moans that the husband who just abandoned Bertie is a total schmuck. There are gaps in character development, too. Cee Cee jumps almost instantly from an ingenue making her Broadway debut to a diva whose husband leaves her after he botched her dressing room deli order in Miami Beach.
So there are edges to smooth out, none rougher than the show’s set. Tony winner Derek McLane also designed the creepy, statuette-covered stage for this year’s Oscars, but unlike Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings,” his Shirlington work is not an improvement. Two stories of walls alongside and over the stage are hung with furniture painted a distressed shabby chic gray. “What’s with all the chairs?” said the gentleman behind me. It’s not just chairs, but tea carts and old sewing machines and desks and phonographs and junk that are never referenced in the script. Only twice does the interior backdrop change to provide a sense of place, and only once does an actor use the furniture in the sets. The movie does unfold in a flashback, but the musical is not a memory play. Perhaps McLane didn’t get that memo to depart from the film, and who can blame him.
Other shows touring or opening soon on Broadway include Rocky and Flashdance. If we must have more movie musicals, let’s make them about retelling good stories, not resurrecting 1980s celebrities. Against the odds, the former is what Beaches has turned out to be.